by Michael Goldberg
Monday December 10, 2001
The Revenge Of The Underground
Is a new day at hand for 'alternative' rockers?
I returned from Europe just in time to see that Neil Strauss of the New York Times had finally discovered that rock is back. Actually, he'd noticed the not-so-quiet return of what, in the early '90s, was called "alternative" rock. In his "Pop Life" column Strauss noted the attention The Strokes and the White Stripes have been getting, and theorized that the teen pop and hard rock that have dominated the charts for the past few years might just be about to give way to an alternative rock revival akin to that of the early '90s.
I've been saying the similar things for the past year at least. I figured it was just a waiting game. Once those preteen and early-teen kids a huge demographic turn 16, they'll certainly want something more substantial than Britney. With The Strokes and the White Stripes garnering so much attention, it does seem that the revenge of the underground could be at hand.
This past spring I first heard The Strokes' debut EP, "The Modern Age." It was immediately apparent that this was not just another band. As critic Jenny Tatone recently noted in a review of their debut album, Is This It, The Strokes capture the feeling of being young and uncertain about life. "People keep writing off their new album, Is This It, as unoriginal adolescent angst. Am I immature because it touches me?... Will I reach a point where I'm over it? When I'm older? Confusion, love, loss and pain aren't these timeless feelings, to be felt over the span of a lifetime...?"
As far as I can tell, The Strokes have received more attention and a bigger backlash from rock fans and indie rock fans reacting to the "hype" then any other band in recent history. The English press went crazy for The Strokes. As has been noted many times, they were on the cover of the NME based on one London club date and the four-song EP, many months before the release of the album. I get the sense that many music fans decided they didn't like The Strokes before they'd heard them, or at least before they'd seriously listened to the album.
This is actually good news. Controversy about a band, especially a great band, can translate into increased popularity. Now the group's song "Last Nite" is getting play on U.S. "alternative" rock stations. Could this turn Is This It into a hit?
Meanwhile, the White Stripes, a rootsy, bluesy, minimalist rock duo with three albums out on an obscure indie label (Sympathy for the Record Industry) have also become hot in Europe. When I was in London recently, the group appeared on a British television show; I visited two record stores in Edinburgh where their latest CD single was displayed on the counter by the cash register . They just signed a deal with V2, the label that Mercury Rev and Grandaddy are signed to. This means that two potent American rock combos have the promotional power of well-funded record companies behind them.
The White Stripes have also had their share of controversy this year. There continue to be questions and articles concerning the relationship of Jack White and his sister, or is it ex-wife, Meg White. In London I had dinner with an American friend who had just seen the White Stripes on TV. He spent 10 minutes complaining about them. They couldn't play. The guitarist was horrible. My friend was laughing about how bad they were.
When I said to him that the White Stripes came out of the punk tradition, and that even if they weren't technical wizards when it came to their instruments that wasn't the point anyway, he just shook his head. He went on to tell me that this was different. They were just plain bad. I then told him that my son had seen the band live and told me they were fantastic, and that Jack White's guitar playing was simply amazing.
Again, this is good news. The new "alternative" rock bands are already drawing that line in the sand. You know the one I'm talking about the one that separates the new generation and the music they love from older generations.
I take it is a very good sign that there are music fans who pride themselves on their good taste, who have such strong opinions about both the White Stripes and The Strokes. In 1976, I remember, KSAN, the hip San Francisco radio station, the one that had been playing songs by the Doobie Brothers and Linda Ronstadt, briefly played records by New York and British punk bands such as The Ramones and the Sex Pistols and The Clash. The station got very angry phone calls from listeners who didn't like this new music.
The Strokes and the White Stripes are simply the tip of the iceberg. Other raw rockers getting some attention now include The Pattern, The Hives, and the (International) Noise Conspiracy. And then there's a whole mess of great post-riot grrrl combos such as Sleater-Kinney, Le Tigre, The Need and Erase Errata. And what about The Faint, that new-wavy band that's been making waves? And Death Cab For Cutie, who just released the amazing The Photo Album?
I guess what I'm trying to say here is that, like the situation during the '80s that set up the grunge explosion of the early '90s, the indie scene of the late '90s has paved the way for real music to rise again. All the crap on the radio and the charts these past few years has fueled a reaction. When real music is out of favor, and prefab, vacuous drivel dominates the airwaves, all the pretenders spend their time trying to manufacture the sound that is in vogue. Often that's when great bands like Nirvana or The Ramones or The Minutemen form.
If you're a real music fan, whether you like The Strokes or the White Stripes is beside the point. You should be rooting for them both. For if they succeed, a lot of good bands and good music will get a shot during the next few years.